Educators Are the Real Influencers
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January 30th, 2022

On Medusa Collection’s Partnership with TeachRock

Mieke Marple

It is not easy to be an educator. Despite the fact that educators shape our most precious resource: the hearts and minds of future generations, we do not treat them like guardians of gold. We treat them with sub-$50K-a-year paychecks (despite a decade or two of experience). With classrooms that have holes in their ceilings, books held together by duct tape, and insufficient supplies that have them spending from their own pockets. And this, according to a 2018 The New York Times survey of public school teachers, is more often the case than not.

Painting inspired by Vincent Van Gogh's "Starry Night" (age 9)
Painting inspired by Vincent Van Gogh's "Starry Night" (age 9)

I never thought I would work in education, let alone as a K-12 tutor. From 2011-2016, I was an art dealer and co-owner of a successful art gallery in Los Angeles where vernissages, champagne, and international flights were my vernacular. Education was the furthest topic from my mind. However, after a humbling bottoming-out at the end of 2016—resulting in me moving in with my parents, returning to art making, and becoming a tutor—I came to realize that the real influencers are not people with large social media followings or offshore bank accounts; they are the educators who mold the worldview we take into adulthood.

When I began tutoring kids in math, english, and art, I figured I’d work in education for a year. Two, at most. It would only be a short time, I told myself, before I reclaimed my elevated status in the art world. This time as a star artist rather than dealer. That, however, did not happen. I ended up working as a tutor for almost five years, stopping only in Sept of 2020 to throw myself into the Medusa Collection, a set of 2,500 generative NFTs I created to reframe the Medusa myth while raising funds for the education non-profit TeachRock.

Drawing inspired by Pablo Picasso (age 9)
Drawing inspired by Pablo Picasso (age 9)

For much of the five years I worked as a tutor, because I wasn’t in magazines or attending penthouse parties, I believed I was a nobody. Because my time with kids wasn’t tracked or celebrated, I believed it was inconsequential. I saw myself the way much of society views educators: as people we say are important, but do not treat as important. As people who, in our attention economy, receive pennies-worth of our time. And, in our actual economy, receive less than that in funding.

It wasn’t until I stopped tutoring and dove deep into the NFT world as a way to reconnect with a larger arts community that I realized what a formative experience tutoring was. It wasn’t merely that working with kids reconnected me with a sense of possibility that I’d lost as a jaded high-end art dealer. It was that the quality of my impact on the two dozen or so students I worked with far exceeded that which I’d had on the hundreds of people I’d interacted with as an art dealer—and how that impacted me.

Painting inspired by Yayoi Kusama's "Pumpkin" (age 9)
Painting inspired by Yayoi Kusama's "Pumpkin" (age 9)

There is nothing more impressionable than a child’s developing brain. School is where many biases are either debunked or reinforced. Messages about who is important and who is not, what kind of work is appropriate for whom, and other world-defining narratives are reinforced with every history lesson that focuses on white, slave-owning founding-fathers over those who were enslaved, every “Colonial Day” that ignores atrocities committed against indigenous peoples, every gendered science lesson. Yet, we cannot blame underpaid teachers—who are often priced out of the neighborhoods where they teach—for not single-handedly updating school curriculum in their nonexistence free time. We have to help.

TeachRock is the perfect partner for this work. When I met Bill Carbone, Executive Director of TeachRock, he told me what they do: create free resources for teachers with a restorative history and arts integration agenda. I knew I’d discovered an organization that was the intersection of all my passions and values. We decided to work together on the Medusa Collection.

Watercolor inspired by Frida Kahlo (age 5)
Watercolor inspired by Frida Kahlo (age 5)

It wasn’t until I began drawing and researching Medusa for my 2019 “Bad Feminist” exhibition that I realized she was actually a survivor of sexual assault. Medusa, according to the Roman poet Ovid, was raped by the god Poseidon and turned into a monster by his wife, the god Athena. When I learned this, I saw Medusa as the misunderstood character she was—a realization that helped me better see myself. That this violence is rarely the part of the myth we learn also felt indicative of the way countless groups are marginalized in the tales we take for granted as “history.”

In tandem with the Medusa Collection, which reframes the narrative through digital artworks, Bill Carbone committed to having TeachRock make a “Medusa Reconsidered” lesson plan to be freely available on their website. He understood how such a lesson could help teachers and students have the same epiphany that I’d had around Medusa. He understood this because that is what TeachRock does.

Painting inspired by David Hockney (age 11)
Painting inspired by David Hockney (age 11)

The stakes are high: Studies show that in certain communities where there is up to a 40% high school dropout rate, 60% of that 40% will spend time in prison. However, according to the Gates Foundation, if a student can form a connection with a single teacher or class, they are much more likely to stay in school. TeachRock’s resources empower teachers to be that teacher, that classroom. Their resources increase engagement by helping students see themselves in the material—because a student must first be able to connect with themselves, before they can go out into the world and connect with others, and thrive.

As I began working on the Medusa Collection this past September, I felt I’d come a long way from the glamor-obsessed art dealer I’d used to be. However, with the approach of the Medusa Collection launch, I felt the familiar temptation to prioritize those with big names, big social media followings, big bank accounts. I needed them to support this project, to tweet about it and spread awareness, because I believed that these people could do more for the project than those with less quantifiable assets. I began to backslide.

Drawing inspired by Keith Haring (age 9)
Drawing inspired by Keith Haring (age 9)

Fortunately, I quickly saw through my own old beliefs and was able to return to a more authentic self. A self who knew on a deeper level that educators, not social media “influencers,” are who matter. That educators are who make the difference, just as they have for so many of us in our formative years.

I realized I had to do something generous for educators. I had to involve them and help them tell their stories. So—as the The Medusa Collection moves into its next phase: uplifting the art and writing of its holders—I will be giving away 25 Medusa NFTs to educators, and possibly even more in the future. I want—need—educators to be part of this next chapter. There is a common refrain that “those who can’t do, teach.” But educators are not lesser artists because of the crucial services they provide, they are greater. Their daily interactions with young minds give them unparalleled insight into the human condition. Educators have something to say and we need to listen.

Drawing inspired by Takashi Murakami (age 11)
Drawing inspired by Takashi Murakami (age 11)

As an art dealer, my main role was to recognize burgeoning talent and create demand for it. As a tutor, it was to nurture that talent through the sharing of knowledge. And now, as creator of the Medusa Collection, it is my purpose, my calling, to do both—all while supporting an organization that empowers educators to do the same in their classrooms. The Medusa Collection is so much more than an artwork, or even a fundraiser. It is a space of learning, sharing, and creation. It is a part of a larger school for good.

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*all artworks by former students of Mieke Marple

Medusa by Amar (age 9)
Medusa by Amar (age 9)
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